Boulder, Colo. • More proof that this is not the standard November for Utah’s football program came Saturday, when the Utes produced their best quarter of the season at just the right time.
Jason Shelley's downfield passing, a change of cleats, more perimeter running and an even more dominant defense all played into the way the Utes asserted themselves in the third period of Saturday's 30-7 victory on a snow-covered Folsom Field. In one of those moments when a good team seizes control of a game, the Utes played like Pac-12 South champions.
That designation transformed into reality early Sunday morning, after Oregon held off Arizona State 31-29 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene that handed the Utes their first-ever South title and a berth in the Pac-12 championship game next weekend against the winner of Saturday’s Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State.
The Utes (8-3, 6-3 Pac-12) may still have some lingering regrets about their three losses this season, but they should feel only satisfaction about what they’ve done in two games since losing quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to injury.
They rallied to beat Oregon, in a season-defining fourth quarter last weekend. And in this episode, Utah’s defense responded to the loss of star linebacker Chase Hansen to a questionable targeting penalty in the first quarter with a phenomenal performance. The Ute offense, mildly dismayed with its first-half showing in a tie game, was nearly unstoppable in the third quarter, turning three possessions into 175 yards and 17 points for a 24-7 lead.
“Obviously, you look back at the season and replay things,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.
• Utah wins the Pac-12 South title after rolling past Colorado 30-7 Saturday, coupled with Oregon’s win over Arizona State early Sunday.
• The Utes post 175 yards to Colorado’s 19 in the third quarter, while outscoring the Buffs 17-0.
• The Utah defense records a whopping 16 tackles for loss, including six sacks.
Yet, regardless of how the race ended, and with the added dynamic of what may happen next Saturday vs. BYU, this month will have a place in Ute history. No longer should Utah be known for November collapses, having overcome all kinds of potentially derailing issues.
“I don't know if I've ever been around a team that handles adversity any better than these guys; they've got a lot of guts and a lot of toughness,” Whittingham said.
“It's a different team,” said kicker Matt Gay, a senior co-captain. “The vibe of this team, the personnel … Losing Huntley and Moss wasn't going to stop us from our goals at the beginning of the season.”
Same story with the officiating, the weather and anything else that could have diverted the Utes. As the backdrop of their latest victory, the field was too frozen for Ralphie the buffalo to make the traditional pregame run. The referee scolded fans for throwing snowballs. Utah running back Armand Shyne had trouble getting any traction up the middle.
So the Utes adjusted. Shelley kept finding Texas high school teammate Jaylen Dixon with long passes and reserve back TJ Green and receiver Britain Covey ran around the edges. Defensively, the Utes were overwhelming. “We're just inept on offense right now; that's the best way to put it,” Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said after his team's 196-yard effort.
The Utes had something to do with that showing. Utah’s 16 tackles for loss, the third-highest total in school history, included six sacks by six different players. Marquise Blair and Jaylon Johnson intercepted passes and Hauati Pututau recovered a fumble. As more evidence of the Utes' ability to adjust to anything that’s thrown at them, Francis Bernard replaced Hansen and led the team with 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss.
That’s what this team keeps doing in November. The Utes' immediate calendar includes a reunion with Bernard’s former BYU teammates. And with some help, they will move on to something bigger at the end of the month.